Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Psalm 138:3-8 - Reasons for praising God

In this psalm the author is engaged in personal worship of God and mentions several reasons for doing so. The first is the efficacy of prayer (v. 3). David does not specify the issue about which he prayed. All we can deduce about it is that he received a speedy reply that included inner strengthening. So what can we say about it?

One detail is obvious and wonderful – the living God answers prayer. In fact, he is the only one in the universe who can do this. Connected to this is that he answers specific prayers – on this occasion he answered the request of David. Further, he answers prayers as the sovereign – granting petitions in a royal manner unlike the rulers of the earth whose inabilities are usually highlighted by their subjects’ requests. And he can answer prayer speedily when he chooses to do so.

The second reason is the extension of God’s kingdom (vv. 4-5). The sentiments of verses 4 and 5 seem a bit out of place here because there is no obvious connection between them and what precedes and follows them. So why does David give God thanks for the future growth of God’s kingdom. Here are a couple of suggestions. First, he believed that what God did for him could also be done with others – he was a king whom God blessed, so therefore other kings too could be blessed. Second, he believed the promises of the Abrahamic covenant that said that all nations would be blessed, and it would be reasonable to assume that their rulers would be as well. Those two reasons can also be found in our experience as we pray. Each of us can say, ‘God converted me so he can also convert people who are like me.’ And each of us should rejoice in the promises that God made to Abraham because they are also promises to us.

The third reason is the eyes of the Lord who loves to gaze on the humble (v. 6). Humility in his people reveals Christlikeness. It is a fruit of the Spirit, evidence that he is working in the hearts of those who have it. As Spurgeon said when commenting on this verse, ‘Because they think little of themselves, he thinks much of them.’

And the fourth reason is the hand of the Lord (v. 7). The psalmist relied on God alone for fresh life and energy in difficult troubles and for protection in dangerous situations. And his faith had been rewarded, and he praised God for helping him personally, powerfully and persistently.

So David was confident that the Lord would be working on his behalf until the end. Verse 8 is an Old Testament version of Paul’s words in Philippians 1:6: ‘And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.’ God’s people have this inner awareness that they are destined for glory. But this awareness leads the psalmist to keep on praying for the divine presence.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Psalm 138:1-2 - Singing by Myself

David here is engaged in private worship because there is no suggestion that someone else is with him. Yet his description of how he worships is full of lessons for us.

The first detail to note from this psalm is that David’s thanksgiving involves all his heart. What does it mean to do something with all one’s heart? It means an undivided heart. Jesus said on one occasion that it is impossible to serve two masters. Similarly it is impossible to worship God if our heart has divided loyalties. In order for worship to occur, there has to be a devoted heart.

Furthermore David has an undistracted heart. Perhaps that is why he is by himself. He has gone somewhere where his thoughts and his affections will not be diverted even by legitimate things. This does not mean that the devil will not attempt to disturb David’s worship. But for David to pray with all his heart indicates he has taken steps to ensure he will not be distracted. If he had possessed a mobile phone, he would have switched it off.

When he worships, David is obviously at a distance from God’s temple. Yet he is aware that others, whom he calls gods, can see him. Who are these gods? They are not likely to be pagan deities, so I assume he is referring to heavenly beings, to the angels. It is a fact of the Christian life that angels are around us, sent by God for various reasons. They will expect us to be thankful when God answers our prayers, and to express our thankfulness.

Moreover, David when he worshipped was conscious of where God revealed his glory in the most profound way, so he even bowed down facing the tabernacle (although the verse says temple, it does not mean the temple that David’s son erected). Where should we face when we worship? Heaven is the answer to that question. I think it is interesting that Jesus looked up when he prayed (John 17:1). His physical posture indicated where his heart was. When we worship, we should be conscious of heaven, the place where God’s glory is revealed in the most profound manner, especially in connection with the exaltation of the Saviour. David may have thought of the sacrifices and the songs taking place at the tabernacle; we think of the living Saviour and of the songs of the redeemed around his throne as we worship privately.

David, as he prayed on this occasion, focused on two divine attributes – God’s covenant love and God’s faithfulness to his promises. In a sense, they are both entwined with one another, although it was useful for David to think about them separately. David realised that God’s character and promises are very important to God, which is why he has made them the most important realities in existence. Since the Lord thinks they are so important, so should we.

It is a question to ask ourselves regarding what we think about God when we worship in private. There are many ways in which we can do so profitably such as thinking about him as the powerful Creator or the sovereign Lord of providence. Yet we should aim higher at times and think about his holy character and his gracious promises. Worship becomes more reverent when we think about his character and it becomes more intimate when we think about his promises. In this way reverence and intimacy both flourish.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Psalm 137 - When not to sing

It is straightforward to see when the psalm was composed. At some stage during the captivity in Babylon a psalmist wrote a sad song for his people to use. Clearly, it was a difficult period to live through if one was a believer in God. The cause of God had been crushed by Babylon, a seemingly unstoppable enemy, and God’s people, instead of being conquerors, were captives. What does a believer do in such a time? He sings a lament to God.

The waters of Babylon were the streams connected to the great rivers Euphrates and Tigris. Some of the streams were redirected as canals to provide places of rest and refreshment for the inhabitants as well as providing water for agriculture and industry. Yet it is obvious that was not why the psalmist and his friends gathered together in those locations. His words give the impression that the seeming omnipresence of the waters reminded them of the great dominance possessed by Babylon. But the achievements of Babylon brought no admiration from their hearts. Instead they remembered another city and as they did so they wept.

The other city was Zion, but what kind of tears did they shed? Were they merely the tears of a Jewish nationalist who was devastated because his people no longer lived in their own land? Or did their tears indicate that something more important was taking place within them? After all, why were they now suffering in Babylon? They were captives in Babylon and away from Zion because they as a people had departed spiritually from God. Their physical exile was caused by their willing departure from God, of their giving their hearts to all kinds of idols. So now they had tears of regret, but it was the kind of regret that accompanies repentance. Living in exile was a good place to reflect on how one arrived there, because it led to repentance.

Life was hard in Babylon for those who wanted to serve God. One difficult aspect was the ongoing taunts of their captors who wanted to be amused by hearing a song of Zion? They had no interest in worshipping the God mentioned in those songs. So the exiles refused to sing them in such a manner. It was an act of corporate courage to hang their harps on the willows. Strangely, those exiles remind us that courage is also seen in what we do not do as well as in what we do.

I doubt if they were suggesting they should never sing during the exile. But maybe they realised the inappropriateness of singing now about what had happened at the temple before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. After all, no sacrifices were offered in Jerusalem during those long years. Whether they sang or not, we should be thankful that we don’t face such a predicament because the remedy for our sins remains constant even when the church is on the sidelines. Yet when we sing, perhaps we should check to see if our words are accompanying a bad memory and wrong priorities. Because it is possible to sing the right words in such a manner that reveals we actually are quite happy to be where we are.

It is almost absurd to imagine that those Israelites crying at the riverside were a threat to the mighty power of Babylon. But they were, and the reason why they were was because they prayed for complete vindication and deliverance. If those requests about Edom and Babylon were only cries of revenge, then we could suggest that the Jews had overstepped the mark. But their requests were linked to prophecies that God had given elsewhere about the complete destruction of Edom and Babylon.

Difficult though the closing verse is to understand, we should not miss the point that the greatest threat to the dominant evil power came from those who prayed for its demise. Their petitions, which were based on what God had predicted would happen, were instrumental in bringing about a global change. Here in this unusual song, which recommends not singing at certain times, we see a group of despised people who were world changers.  And in that are they not a great challenge to us to be the same as them?

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Psalm 136 - Who is our God?

This psalm obviously focuses on the steadfast love of God as we can see from the refrain in each verse. The clear deduction we can make from the contents of the psalm is that all that happens in life is connected to his love as far as his people are concerned. A wide variety of situations are mentioned, yet each happened because God is love.

We can see in this psalm a pattern for how we should praise our God. Basically we praise him for who he is and for what he does. Both his character and his conduct should be central in our praise. And our praise should be marked by thanksgiving and by intelligent appreciation of what he has done.

Regarding the character of God, the psalmist first mentions that God is good. God’s goodness is the expression of his love. Then the author mentions God’s sovereignty, that he is in control of all other rulers. The third attribute of God that the psalmist focuses on is that the Lord can do great wonders. In a sense, this is a definition of God. In our praise we should mention his wonderful acts. Worship in a real sense is repeating to God his own greatness. We demean God when we do not mention his dignity, and an essential part of his dignity is his ability to work wonders.

The psalmist also considers three features of God’s conduct. First, he is the almighty Creator who brought everything into existence. Second, he is the great Redeemer of his people who delivered them from bondage in Egypt. Third, he is the God of providence who provided his people with food. We can apply those three features to ourselves – the Lord is our Creator, Redeemer and Provider.

An incident that took place in Alexandria in Egypt on February 8th, 358. One of the leaders of the congregation there was Athanasius, a theologian who is remembered today for defending the doctrine of the eternal sonship of Jesus. He had many enemies, both religious and political, and they got the civil authorities to attack him and his congregation. So the government sent soldiers to the church while a meeting was taking place. The worshippers were frightened. But Athanasius announced that they would sing Psalm 136 and the soldiers were astonished as they heard the congregation sing the refrain twenty-six times that God’s love endures forever. The cruelty of the soldiers had not been confined to the church and many living in its vicinity had been killed. Athanasius and many of his flock did not perish that night and they always remembered afterwards that their God is good. And we should do the same.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Psalm 135 - Praising the Lord

The psalm opens with an exhortation, maybe offered by the worshippers at the temple concerning those working for God within it (vv. 1-2). They wanted those workers to enjoy praising God – they describe such praise as good and pleasant. It is good because it is right and it is pleasant because it is enjoyable.

They had many reasons for praising God. One was his sovereign selection of Israel as his people (v. 4). Another was his sovereign control of the created order (vv. 5-7). A third was his acts in history on behalf of his people – in verses 8-12 the author repeats what happened at the Exodus as an encouragement to expect great things from God.

They could also praise God for what he will do in the future (vv. 13-18). Unlike the dumb idols of the nations, the Lord will yet vindicate those who worship him. The idols, because they are non-existent, cannot do anything for those who serve them. Idols are only an extension of those who make them and merely reflect the desires of their makers. In contrast, the Lord is eternal and he will always do great things for his people.

Verses 19-20 indicate that the worshippers saw their song as containing topics that would encourage those who served the Lord in a full-time way. The same reasons can be used as encouragement for contemporary servants of God and it is important for other Christians to remind them of who God is and what he has done for his cause in the past. We should remind one another that our God has eternally loved his people, that he is in control of the universe today, that he has delivered his cause countless times in the past, and that he has wonderful plans for them as they anticipate an endless future of divine blessing.

It is not surprising that those who sang the psalm closed it with a strong affirmation of praise for the Lord (v. 21). The important aspect of Israel’s situation was that their God dwelt with them in Jerusalem. His care and his provision was not given from a detached location. And his care and provision for us is even more intimate. Therefore we should imitate them and bless our God.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Psalm 134 - Mutual Blessings

Verses 1 and 2 express the desires of the worshippers for the priests and others who served overnight in the temple. Twenty-four Levites, three priests and the captain of the guard were on duty each night. Verse 3 is the response of the priests to the worshippers given in the form of a benediction.

It is clear that what the worshippers want is that the priests and others in the temple should speak well of the Lord as they performed their tasks. Perhaps the worshippers realised the dangers connected to repetition of rituals. Or maybe they knew that slackness could have been a possibility at night because no one would be observing those working in the temple.

How does one speak well of the Lord? It means to announce to others the great things that God has done, and to do so clearly, passionately, regularly, and thankfully. The God of Israel had done great things for them as a nation. Similarly, we should desire our God-appointed church leaders to speak well of his gracious dealings with us in redemption from the bondage of sin, in restoration to his family as his children, in the renewing that occurs in sanctification, and in having the great prospect of heaven.

The priest and Levites on duty in the temple responded with the words of verse 3: ‘The Lord who made heaven and earth bless you from Zion!’ Immediately we have an example of speaking well of the Lord. In saying this benediction, the temple workers were giving assurance that they were remembering their God-given calling.

Even in such a short sentence there are many features of the greatness of God. One is that they worshipped the same God as the worshippers did. Of course, this is an obvious point, but one that we should always remember.

Secondly, they reminded the worshippers of God’s great abilities. He was the Maker and Upholder of all that exists (the universe) and would take care of them wherever they were. Although they would have to return home from Jerusalem, the Lord would still bless them from Zion. The conveyor belt of blessings would continue to provide the worshippers with spiritual blessings wherever they were. 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Psalm 133 - Brotherly Love

The psalm was written by David during an occasion when he had enjoyed the harmony and peace of the family of God. Such occasions must have been oases in the desert for him, especially when he was being opposed by false friends and others. The psalm points to the privilege of being allowed access into such fellowship, the pleasantness of enjoying such fellowship, and the purpose of God that such fellowship should mark his people. 

Adoption into God's family is the greatest privilege that a believer can have. Theoretically, a sinner could be justified (forgiven), sanctified (made holy) and glorified without being adopted. In addition to these blessings is the permanent status of adoption. One of the best things to do when feeling down in a spiritual sense is to read the various New Testament verses that describe various aspects of the fatherhood of God.

The psalmist likens this relationship to the oil with which the high priest was anointed and to the dew that descended on the mountains of Israel. The people had read the accounts of the anointing of their priest and would have experienced the refreshing dew on a daily basis.

Both the oil and the dew are symbols of the presence of the Holy Spirit with his people. The illustration of the oil indicates that the presence of the Spirit was connected to the intercession of the high priest. When he was anointed with oil, the oil flowed on to his shoulders and down his clothes. Jesus is our high priest and we know that on his inauguration, after he ascended to heaven, he was anointed with the Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost, the oil flowed down to the church in Jerusalem and it has been flowing from Jesus to his people ever since.

The illustration of dew on Mount Hermon and Mount Zion perhaps points to the great reality that all God’s people, the big and the small, possess this copious Spirit. Hermon was a large mountain whereas Zion was a small hill, yet both enjoyed the presence of the dew. No Christian can say that he does not possess the Holy Spirit. Whatever his spiritual gifts, experiences, and attainments, he has the Spirit of unity. 

This Holy Spirit-given brotherly love has many benefits. Like the oil and the dew, it is refreshing, and it spreads. Clearly, unity of believers is very desirable. There are many ways by which unity can be presented. The Lord’s people should be one doctrinally, should be one practically, and should be one internally from the heart. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Psalm 132:13-16 - Desire of God to dwell in Zion

The author describes the Lord’s response to the prayer that was made in verses 7-9. As with other similar Old Testament passages we have to read this psalm with New Testament eyes. Zion is not a geographical location in modern-day Israel, rather it describes the church of God (Heb. 12:22-24). 

The author mentions that the Lord chose Zion for his dwelling place. Originally Zion was a Canaanite location. It illustrates the sinful background of the members of the church. It was an act of grace for the Lord to dwell on the ark in a place that had known pagan inhabitants, but it is a far greater act of grace for him to choose to dwell in the hearts of those who once were rebels against him. But this choice was not forced upon him; instead he desired it with all his heart. 

This dwelling of God in his people will be eternal (v. 14). He will be content, permanently delighted to dwell with them. The Lord has no desire to change his place of abode. His redeemed will be his companions and joy forever. 

In the dwelling place of God there will be no starvation (v. 15). The members of the church are poor in spirit. But in God they have plenty: ‘Daily provision, royal provision, satisfying provision, overflowingly joyful provision the church shall receive; and the divine benediction shall cause us to receive it with faith, to feed upon it by experience, to grow upon it by sanctification, to be strengthened by it to labour, cheered by it to patience, and built up by it to perfection’ (Spurgeon).

Further, his servants are given the garments of salvation and this causes them to sing for joy. In the Old Testament temple, only a few were priests; in the church, which is the permanent temple of God, they all are priests. And none of them is silent; each of them has something to say to God. 

In verses 17 and 18, the Lord answers the prayer of verse 10. The ultimate fulfilment is seen in the Lord’s anointed, Jesus. God says about his Messiah that his kingdom will grow permanently (horn will sprout) and his light will shine permanently. The reference to a horn seems to be taken from the horns of a stag that, as they grow, point to its increasing nobility and strength. 

The period in which the horn is sprouting is also the period in which the lamp is shining. Here is a reference to Jesus as the light of the world. Today, as he sits on the divine throne possessing all power, he is also the source of spiritual light that is being spread throughout the world out of Zion. 

Verse 18 details that those who oppose Jesus will be clothed with shame. Their combined opposition will not prevent his crown from flourishing.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Psalm 132:1-12 - Building for God

The background to the psalm is David’s desire to build a house for the Lord, which we can read about in 2 Samuel 6 and 7. The ark of the covenant, which symbolised the presence of God with his people, had not been located in a suitable place for a long time, therefore David resolved to build such a house for it. We know that God did not allow David to do so. Nevertheless his desire was commendable and God-honouring. We should honour believers that attempt things for God’s glory even if their aim is not realised (vv. 1-6).

Solomon completed the house for the Lord and the ark was brought into it (vv. 7-10). It was a time of great rejoicing and the people worshipped their God who now dwelt among them in a symbolic way. Yet as the people worship, they desire that what was symbolised would become reality. In verse 7, they realised that the proper response in the presence of God is worship that recognises he is a king (they are at his footstool). In verse 8, they want the Lord to remain with them (the idea of a resting-place does not suggest that he is tired, but that he is content). Verse 9 indicates that the worshipping priests, who wore white clothes, should have the righteousness that these clothes pictured, and the rest of the worshippers should offer joyful praise. 

What made the temple of Solomon glorious was not its vast size or its ornate structure. Rather, it was glorious because the Lord dwelt in it and was worshipped there by his adoring people. A big building without God is only a pile of stones built in a particular way. In order for worship to take place there must be the presence of God and obedient worshippers.

The second section of the psalm concerns almost the opposite of the first section. In the first section, David had been concerned about building a house for the Lord; in the second section, the Lord promises to build a house for David. In verses 11 and 12, the author refers to what is called the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7) in which the Lord promised David that one of his sons would sit on his throne, and that his line would continue as long as they were faithful to God.

While there are elements of this covenant that apply to Solomon and later kings, the main emphasis is that this is a reference to the Messiah who would come from the line of David. When we come to the New Testament we see the covenant fulfilled in Jesus. For example, there are the words of Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:31-33: ‘And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ So Jesus is the fulfilment of what is promised in the psalm.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Psalm 131 - Spiritual Development

Psalm 131 is concerned about progress or development in the religious life, and David uses the illustration of a weaned child to picture this increase in spiritual stature. So what are the signs of spiritual maturity?

Humility is described in verse 1 by the use of three word pictures. David’s heart was not full of himself, nor was he ambitious for a greater position than what God had already given him, and nor did he in engage in the folly of trying to understand what we are not capable of understanding. David in speaking those words was expressing his humility to the Lord. This is a reminder that we can be totally honest before the Lord. We can speak truths about ourselves to the Lord that would be inappropriate to speak before humans, even Christians. As Matthew Henry observed, ‘This was David’s rejoicing, that his heart could witness for him that he had walked humbly with his God, notwithstanding the censures he was under and the temptations he was in.’

Calmness is referred to in verse 2. We are not told why David calmed himself. Perhaps he was facing attacks of various kinds. Maybe he knew disappointments through others letting him down. Calmness and confidence in the Lord go together. He knows best how to deal with us. It reflects these words of Murray McCheyne: ‘It has always been my aim, and it is my prayer, to have no plan as regards myself; well assured as I am that the place where the Saviour sees meet to place me must ever be the best place for me.’

Longings are mentioned in verse 3. When a person is developing in the spiritual life, one sign of it is that he thinks less of his own needs and more of the needs of Christ’s church. This is what David expresses in verse 3: ‘O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore.’ This understanding only comes by experience. David, having tasted the faithfulness and the consolations of God, exhorts others to also hope in the Lord. When we find such sentiments in our hearts, we can conclude that we are growing in grace.

C. H. Spurgeon said of this psalm: ‘It is one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn. It speaks of a young child, but it contains the experience of a man in Christ. Lowliness and humility are here seen in connection with a sanctified heart, a will subdued to the mind of God, and a hope looking to the Lord alone. Happy is the man who can without falsehood use these words as his own; for he wears about him the likeness of his Lord, who said, “I am meek and lowly in heart.”’

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Psalm 130 - Looking for God's Mercy

The author of the psalm is not identified, which means that we do not know who wrote it or when it was written. Yet we can see that his focus is on the mercy of God.

The psalmist begins by saying that he is in the depths, a graphic word picture of a man overwhelmed by powerful waters (vv. 1-2). The verb indicates that he has been there for a while, so this is the assessment of an experienced believer. There are several reasons why a believer could be in the depths: difficult providences in his personal life, denial of hopes that he may have anticipated, a sense of desertion by God. Yet such experiences are not the primary reasons for his despondency at the time. The psalmist’s mention of sin in verse 3 tells us what was the cause of his dejection.

Yet the psalmist knew where help was to be found – in the God against whom he had sinned. Therefore he turns to the Lord and asks for mercy. We should note his attitude as he draws near to God: there is a mixture of boldness (he asks the Lord to open his ears) and there is an expression of humility (he pleads for mercy). How can a sinner have such boldness in the presence of the holy God? The answer is that he knows the character and the promises of the God to whom he is speaking.

God’s mercy fills the psalmist with amazement (vv. 3-4). He knows that if the Lord treated him as he deserved he would have no expectation of help. Yet he knows about God’s desire to forgive. The apostle John tells us that God is forgiving, that he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

The psalmist then likens himself to the watchmen who stood on the walls of a city looking for the coming of daylight (vv. 5-6). This illustration tells us that there was expectancy of deliverance in his heart. The reason for his confidence was not in his earnest prayer but in the sure word of God. And his illustration of coming daylight depicts not partial release but complete release from the problem his sins have caused.

Out of his own experience, the psalmist was able to comfort others (vv. 7-8). We can say to one another, ‘Look what the Lord did for me. I know he can also do it for you.’ The psalmist’s words here are a reminder that although each Christian has an individual path, it is a similar path to other believers. Because he has been forgiven much and rescued from great danger, he understands the needs of every other believer, and he is sympathetic to them and confident about their deliverance and forgiveness as well.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Psalm 129 - What do do when trouble comes

The unknown author of this psalm is reflecting on a common problem of God’s people – the ongoing opposition that they face. He observes that Israel has known antagonism since the beginning of her existence, her youth.

What this psalm calls for is a sense of realism among God’s people (vv. 1-3). This psalm is a reminder that believers living in this world are travelling through enemy country. In verse 3, the psalmist uses the illustration of a ploughman digging a furrow repeatedly on a person’s back to describe the troubles of God’s people. Obviously it would be painful, but the illustration also indicates that the troubles are malicious.

It is important to note the communal aspect stressed by the author. When his enemies attacked him, they were adding to a deep wound that he already possessed because of the spiritual link he had to previous generations of God’s people. The psalmist identified with their troubles. Of course, this sense of community also embraces other believers who are alive today and who are suffering for their faith.

Yet, as verse 4 indicates, sometimes the Lord delivers his people suddenly and completely. However dark and difficult and dangerous a situation may seem, God knows how to rescue his people from it. Sometimes he sends an angel to open a prison door to let Peter out (Acts 12:6-8); at other times he can move an emperor (Cyrus) to set his people free. The psalmist’s comfort is that the Lord is righteous, that he will remember his covenant commitments, and eventually come to the help of his people in a public way.

In verses 5-8, the psalmist prays for the removal of those who were persecuting God’s people. Some find fault with this type of prayer because they suggest it lacks love. Yet the psalmist also loves God’s cause and wants it to prosper. Therefore he prays that the influence of evil people would be brief. He likens them to seeds of grass that are blown on to a flat rooftop and somehow take root in the small amount of ground that may also have been blown there. Fortunately for the householder, such grass soon withered away.

We see ongoing attacks made today by the enemies of the church. As we pray about the situation, we have two choices: one is that God would convert them, and we should be praying earnestly for this to happen; the other is that, in one way or another, God would cause their enmity against his kingdom to cease. We should pray that their influence would be as minimal as grass growing on a housetop. When we pray earnestly for this, it is evidence that we love Zion.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Psalm 128 - Blessings from fearing the Lord

The primary focus of the psalm is not the blessings of family life (of which some are mentioned), but the blessings that come to believers through fearing the Lord. The first word of the psalm is ‘blessed’, which means happy. Happiness is what every person looks for, and in this psalm we are told how we will get it (by fearing the Lord) and what it will look like in several areas of life (in work, in the home, and in the church).

How can we know that a person fears God? The answer is given in the next line of the psalm: such will walk in God’s ways. The imagery of walking illustrates progress and a destination, and we have God as upholder, teacher and guide along the path to heaven.

Great promises are given in this psalm to the person who fears God. We have to remember that when this psalm was written, the husband usually worked from home (v. 2). In biblical times, one could walk past a house and see the husband working at his trade, his wife busy in the home, and the children sitting around the house. Work in the ancient world was usually done in order to provide the basics of life. The psalm promises that such will be provided to the person that fears God.

The next blessing concerns the man’s wife who is described as a fruitful vine (v. 3). The vine in Israel was regarded as a source of refreshment, shelter and fragrance. That is how the man who fears the Lord will regard his wife. Just as the vine symbolised joy, so such a man finds great joy in what his wife brings to their home. His contribution is to work for the security of their needs, her contribution is to provide the beauty of their home.

When there is such a husband and wife, then there will be happy children. The father is likened to an old olive tree around which younger plants are growing, partaking of his wisdom and knowledge. The imagery also suggests that as the plants grow, they protect the older tree that has become weaker through age.

Such a home is worth observing says the psalmist in verse 4. We are to behold it, to contemplate with wonder what the Lord can do in a home inhabited by sinful parents and children. A happy home is the blessing often given to those who fear the Lord.

In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist describes public blessings in addition to the private ones he mentions in the previous verses. They can be interpreted as definite promises or as prayer requests. In either case, those who fear the Lord will receive spiritual blessings from Zion. The house of God becomes a blessing to our homes when we fear the Lord.

The psalmist also mentions that the man who fears the Lord will see his grandchildren. No doubt, there is the family joy of descendants included in this promise. Further, and probably more important, is the fact that the presence of grandchildren would indicate to the psalmist the continuation of family inheritance.

The psalm closes with a benediction, probably originally announced by a priest in the temple. We are assured that the Great High Priest in heaven is also raising this benediction over us, ensuring that the blessings promised to those who fear God will come to us. May he say to us at this time, ‘Peace be upon Israel.’

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Psalm 127 - The God of Providence

The opening lines of the psalm, in Latin, were chosen as the motto of the city of Edinburgh (‘without the Lord, it is vain’). Although it appeared on official documents of the city it is clear that the sentiments of the motto are no longer prominent in the thinking of the majority who live there.

Unusually for a psalm this one contains neither prayer nor praise to God; instead it contains observations on life. The main point of the psalm is that the Lord is the God of providence, that he is working in all the areas of life, both public and domestic.

It is a psalm that is concerned about the healthy functioning of society and it tells how to relate to political authority, military power and family responsibilities.

The political authority is described in verse 1: ‘Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’ Every time a country has a general election, the various political parties make great promises about what they intend to construct in that society. The military authority is described in the second clause of verse 2: ‘Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.’  The presence of political leaders and military strength does not remove worry unless the Lord is with them.

The psalm has three applications at a personal level: (a) work; (b) worry; (c) family.

The believer and work. In verse 2, the writer is not saying that there is anything wrong with getting up early or staying up late. What is wrong is the assumption that such personal sacrifices will have any benefit if God is omitted from the person’s life.

The believer and worry (v. 2). The great benefit that the Psalmist has experienced is that of sleep. Again the writer is not saying that lack of sleep is always the result of sin. Yet it is the case that unnecessary worry deprives us of sleep just as much as justifiable concern. We cannot expect to have pleasant sleep in general if we do not trust in God day by day. Jesus commanded his disciples that they were not to be over-concerned about their daily needs because of the awareness of those needs by the heavenly Father.

The believer and his family (vv. 3-5). Verse 3 teaches that children belong to the Lord and are given by him to be prized by their parents (the word ‘reward’ does not mean that they have earned their children by right living; it means a ‘precious gift’). In Old Testament times it was essential for families to have children in order to ensure the continuation of the family inheritance.

In verse 4, children are likened to arrows that parents shoot out into the world. Arrows have to be made from branches by being shaped and smoothed. Similarly, parents have the God-given task of shaping and smoothing the characters of their children in order for them to benefit society and the church in the future.

Solomon realised that he needed God’s help in very situation of life. We know that he had to learn this basic lesson through hard experiences arising from his own folly. May we learn the same lesson by remaining on the path of obedience to God’s commands.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Psalm 126 - Spiritual Recovery

The psalm itself does not contain any information as to when it was written, apart from being composed after a time of great deliverance (v. 1) and yet during a time of captivity (v. 4). It divides into two sections: verses 1 to 3 describe the effects of the restoration; verses 4 to 6 describe the need for ongoing recovery.

Although the psalmist rejoices in what the Lord has done in delivering Israel, he realises that God has to continue giving benefits to his people. Therefore he prays that the Lord would deal with the situation regarding the annual harvests because the land would not have been maintained during the years of trouble. He prays for the rains that the farmers would need in order for there to be a harvest, and these plentiful rainfalls become a picture to him of what God can do for his people in a spiritual sense.

The effects of previous restoration (vv. 1-3)
The author highlights three features of the restoration. First, he mentions that the previous restoration had been the Lord’s work. Then he states that the Lord’s deliverance had been incredible, far beyond their greatest expectations, a reminder that nothing is too hard for the Lord. Further, the consequence was such a noticeable transformation that caused even the surrounding nations to conclude it was given by the Lord.

Desiring more of God’s grace (vv. 4-6)
The first aspect of this desire is the intensity of one’s prayer life. The psalmist himself was in a healthy state of soul, otherwise he would not have identified the problems. Yet he knew it was not enough that he personally was making progress. As long as other Israelites were in captivity, so was he. He knew what God could do, as the illustration from sowing seed in the Negev desert indicates. Therefore he prayed earnestly for further divine blessing.

This leads to the second aspect of this desire, which is busyness in the Lord’s work. The farmer has to sow, and so do Christians. Conversions are not dependent on our preparatory work, but they are unlikely to happen without it. The amount of our work for the Lord usually reveals the degree of ardency in our hearts.

A feature that marks both literal and spiritual sowing is tears. In the spiritual sense, there are many reasons for tears: the smallness of many of our churches, the slight that is done to the Saviour, the failure of humans to live for God’s glory, and the awful destiny of hell are some reasons. But these reasons are outside of us, and we will only have tears if our inside is sympathetic to what is happening outside. We need compassionate hearts, sympathetic hearts, and above all Christlike hearts (the more Christlike we are, the more tears we will have).

The seed is also described as ‘precious’. The seed of the gospel is precious because of what it cost to procure it. It was paid for by the infinite cost of the Saviour’s sacrifice. The price that he paid so that we could be sowers is beyond calculation. It is also precious because we have experienced its saving blessings in our own souls. The most astonishing spectacle in the world today is a Christian who has stopped appreciating the greatness of God’s salvation.

If the dominant feature of the sowing is tears, then the leading feature of the subsequent harvest is great joy. This is always the effect of gospel success, as a reading of the Book of Acts will show.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Psalm 125 - Riches of God's Grace

We are not told who wrote this psalm or when it was composed. Verse 3 could suggest that the Israelites had recently experienced deliverance from captivity. This detail points to the faithfulness of God to his promises – that, although he has to chastise his people when they backslide, eventually he restores them. It is this permanent principle that makes the psalm so precious to believers in all ages.

As people walked round the city of Jerusalem, they observed the defence that the surrounding mountains gave to the city. As they did so, they compared these natural defences to the spiritual protection that they had in God.

In verse one, the psalmist says that the defining mark of God’s people is that they trust in the Lord. Only those who trust in him will experience his blessings. God’s people are not only saved by faith, they also live by faith. We are so used to this description of the Lord’s people that we are liable to forget its simplicity. Faith is based on information but it does not need a great intellect; the believer with a smaller intellect can live by faith just as much as the believer with a greater intellect. Faith is strengthened by experiences, but it does not need profound experiences in order to function. What matters as far as faith is concerned is the object of one’s faith.

The first blessing that the psalmist mentions is the permanence of the believer – he or she cannot be removed from their standing in God’s presence (v. 1). Then he mentions the Lord’s protecting grace in verse 2. We have powerful enemies (the world, the flesh and the devil), but we have an infinitely powerful God. Verse 3 reminds us of another blessing of grace – the Lord prevents his people from entering into situations in which they might sin.

Moving on to verse 4, we see that God’s grace provides what his people need. In this verse the psalmist turns from speaking about God to speaking to God. His practice here is one that we should imitate. He prays that God’s people would enjoy God’s good things. What a range of spiritual benefits is found in that small word ‘good’! What a variety of blessings we can pray for one another to receive.

In verse 5, we see another side to God’s providence. If people choose wrong paths, the Lord will shepherd them as well, except he will lead them into paths of destruction. This is a reminder that sinners cannot oppose God and get away with it. In a sense, God gives them the path that they chose, which is solemn.

Nevertheless, the Lord also gives the blessing of peace to his people (v. 5). We should note the certainty of it and the comprehensiveness of it. Peace will be theirs wherever they are and it will be theirs at all times. The peace of God is not merely the absence of hostilities, it is also his powerful presence revealed in a variety of ways. After all, he is the God of all grace (1 Pet. 5:10). 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Psalm 124 - Song of Deliverence

This psalm was written by David to celebrate a communal deliverance rather than a personal one. Likely it was written after an attack by the Philistines because they were the enemies that Israel faced during David’s reign. Whenever it was written, David composed it because he wanted others to use his words when praising God.

There are several lessons that can be taken from this psalm as we consider the state of God’s cause today. Firstly, we should realise the fierceness of the enemies of God’s people. David gives vivid descriptions of his foes: wild animals, overwhelming storms, raging torrents. These descriptions illustrate what these enemies want – the utter destruction of the church.

Secondly, we should not judge a situation by appearances. It is common for us to hear and to say that the church is weak today, with the impression being given that in the past it was not weak. But the church has always been weak; the difference between the church of the past and the church of today is that God came and delivered his church in the past and he has not yet come and delivered today’s church. As we look at the current situation, we are to view it in the light of God’s character, particularly his promises to bless sinners, and of his power.

Thirdly, the psalm shows that deliverance from God may not come until we are at our wit’s end. The Israelites were facing imminent destruction; they had no way of escape. Sometimes I wonder if the church in Britain has yet reached that place. There is little evidence of desperation among Christians, a desperation that would cause them to wrestle with God to come and give prosperity to his church. It is a healthy spiritual sign when believers are at their wit’s end because then they will be forced to their knees.

Fourthly, the psalm tells us that during the onslaught we have to remain at our posts and not run away. David and his men lined up for the battle even although the enemy looked more powerful than they. The same is required of us.

Fifthly, when deliverance comes, God should get all the glory. In the psalm, he is praised for setting the people free.

Sixthly, when God delivers, he often delivers completely. This is depicted in the illustration of the bird escaping from a trap. Their release was one that both showed their weakness and the Lord’s power.

What is our hope as we face our opponents? The answer is God. Our response is not to be pessimism or panic. We are to retain full confidence in the gospel as the power of God to change the lives of sinners and we are to expect to see them converted through our prayers and witness. And we are to be optimistic that the God, who delivered his church in the past from the attack of powerful enemies, will yet deliver it on a grand scale. In the meantime, we should take up Isaiah’s challenge: ‘You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth’ (Isa. 62:6-7).

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Psalm 123 - Prayer for Divine Help

This psalm is a prayer for God’s aid. Verse 1 is spoken by an individual and the other three verses are spoken by a group. This division points to the psalm originally being used in a response setting, with a leader singing the first verse and the congregation responding with verses 2–4. The psalm is basically two prayers – the prayer of the individual and the prayer of the group.

The psalm was composed during a time when God’s people were enduring strong derision. This was not a pleasant experience and the people of God were not expected to cope with it in a stoical manner. Instead they were to take their distress to God. A stoical attitude is often an expression of confidence in one’s own ability to cope with a difficult situation and is not a commendable response as far as spiritual matters are concerned.

Today we face a similar situation. The Christian faith is despised as foolishness by the intellectuals in our society and ignored as useless by most of the rest. Christians feel weak and are reluctant to stand out for Christ, not because they are going to be physically assaulted but because they are going to be derided. We are regarded as relics from a past that society has gladly forgotten. It is not easy to be mocked, which means that this psalm is of great relevance for us because that is the scenario with which it deals.

Obviously the psalm encourages us to pray in such times. Using the imagery of a master and slaves the author of the psalm leads us to confess God’s sovereignty. Dark times are a good time to do this.

Further, the imagery points us to the hand of God. The male and female slaves in a household would stand in a room with their eyes permanently on their owner’s hand. It was usual for the owner to beckon commands rather than to vocalise them, therefore it was very important for their hands to be observed. In general, their hands gave provision (shared food from the table), gave direction (indicated actions to be done), gave protection, and gave discipline (punished a disobedient slave). Each of these has parallels to how God deals with his people.

So the author takes this imagery and says that what the humble slaves of God desire is mercy. It is not so much mercy for their sins, although believers often ask for mercy in this sense. Rather they want mercy to be shown by the removal of the sources of contempt. How God will answer is his prerogative.

Those believers had holy resolution. They were not going to stop praying until God delivered them. Their prayers were simultaneously persistent and patient. This is how we show we are putting God first – we bring the matter to him and plead humbly and expectedly with him until he answers. The Lord is full of pity towards us and he will listen sympathetically to such a cry. Eventually he will answer if we persist in our prayers.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Psalm 122 - In the city of God

This psalm initially expressed the delight of worshippers as they arrived in Jerusalem for one of the annual feasts. It contains several important lessons regarding public worship.

First, there is in verse 1 mutual exhortation to worship. It is important for us to encourage one another as we go to meet with God. In his presence, we regain a proper perspective on life and are released from the competing pressures that influence us adversely on a daily basis.

Second, verses 1 and 2 also highlight the wonderful reality of sharing public worship with those whom God has rescued from spiritual danger. When the worshippers stepped within the city gates they found themselves within a secure environment. The city was surrounded with walls, which gave protection to the inhabitants. Similarly, public worship is a reminder of the security of Gods people, that they have been delivered from their sins and are no longer under the judgement of God.

Third, entering Jerusalem gave pilgrims the opportunity of observing the buildings of the city (v. 3). The psalm indicates that it was a well-designed city. The same is true of the spiritual Jerusalem, whether we think of it in its heavenly location or its earthly expression in the visible church. An obvious feature of the literal city was its ability to cater for the vast numbers that gathered for the annual feasts. Similarly, the church of Christ has enough room for all who wish to join it. Of course, the room is for those who want to worship God, to think about his salvation.

Fourthly, in verse 4, the psalm mentions the unity of the people. Whatever their background, social level, intellectual abilities, or age, they were together. The place where unity is shown on a weekly basis is the local congregation.

Fifthly, again in verse 4, the psalmist draws attention to the twofold purpose of gathering in Jerusalem. One was to listen at Israels testimony (the place where the priests instructed the people about God and his purposes) and the other was to give thanks to God. Public worship is a two-way event, an interaction between God and those who worship. There has to be instruction by those whom God has gifted for this role; there has to be a response from the congregation, that of thanksgiving to God for his faithfulness.

Sixthly, the psalmist mentions the importance of prayer in verses 6 and 7. Prayer is to be made for two details: peace and prosperity. It is easy to see that without peace there can be no prosperity. It has been observed that the psalmist prays for peace within the walls, not for the erection of more walls.

Seventhly, the psalmist highlights the need of personal dedication (vv. 8-9). He devotes himself to saying and doing only the things that make for peace. As far as his fellow-worshippers are concerned, his speech will focus on peaceful words, with the aim of giving to them a spirit of contentment and concord. Similarly, his actions would always have the aim of the prosperity of Gods kingdom.

Why this emphasis on peace? Because Jerusalem (Salem) is the city of peace where the Prince of peace reigns, where the peace of God rules in the hearts of the inhabitants because they are reconciled to him.